Three years ago, I visited the village of Kalana 20 kms outside King Williams’ Town. Okuhle Jali, a bright young learner from Dale Junior where I teach, had drowned in a tragic accident whilst on a school outing and our staff had gone to the village to visit his family. It was late evening by the time the prayers were over and when I walked out of the hut, I was overwhelmed by the silent beauty of the land and the stars. Okuhle was laid to rest in a grave overlooking the gentle valley beneath his home.
Since then I have often thought of the place and yearned to spend time there. My 60th birthday was approaching and I thought how wonderful it would be to begin a new decade in such a special place. But how was I going to approach an isiXhosa family and ask for this unusual privilege? I um-d and ah-d about it for days. I prepared what I would say, tossed it out, made up something else, tossed that out, thought about it until my brain nearly exploded with all the thinking, then gave up. I handed it over to Love: I would do nothing further, unless by some miracle the family contacted me, and that was an end to it.
And then, by some miracle, on Tuesday morning last week, the family contacted me. I got a message from Mrs Jali in response to a picture I had posted on my status. I smiled to the core and goose-bumps ran rampant with gratitude. I phoned her, made my request and in a quiet voice, she said, “No problem”.
On Sunday, Quentin and I drove out to Kalana. When we turned off the national road to the village, late afternoon light bounced off the hard, grey earth. I was shocked to see what the drought had done. However, a light rain was starting to stain the ground in patches. A goat observed us with bored interest from the shelter of an outside toilet, an acacia leaf dangling from its mouth.
We found the landmark church and shop; Mrs Jali was on the road to meet us and led us down a track to their home. When we stepped inside, we were met by Mr Jali, his sister, and Zenande, the Jali’s daughter. We sat down together in the lounge, exchanged greetings, and chatted. Then Mrs Jali got up quietly and went into the kitchen. Mr Jali is steeped in isiXhosa culture and history and we learnt a lot about his family along with aspects of isiXhosa history. He encouraged us to visit the Great Place, burial site of King Rharabe, situated off the R63 beyond Dimbaza.
Fifteen minutes later, we were invited to the dining-room table to share “amanz’ashushu”. This means hot water and is a meal offered to guests at their first visit. There wasn’t actually any hot water at the meal, but there was a plate of delicious chicken, vegetables and salad, followed by a sponge pudding and fruit salad. We were joined at the table by Mr Jali’s older brother, a pensioner who had come home to live in Kalana. His clothes were damp from being out in the rain, gathering his sheep for the night. He had a firm handshake and a strong voice and he led the conversation while we ate. Then he got up and greeted, saying that he needed to get home and into dry clothes. He tossed a conspiratorial grin over his shoulder as he left, saying that supper awaited him.
After the meal, we retired to the lounge where the conversation continued and our food digested. Zenande washed the dishes quietly in the kitchen. Then it was time to go.
I asked if we might walk around outside, so Quentin could see the view. We did. The same gift of silence and peace were present as they had been in the past. Mr Jali asked if we would like to visit Okuhle’s grave. As he pushed open the gate, he greeted his son and said that one of his past teachers had come to visit. We stood at the grave side for a long time, I couldn’t speak, but held Mrs Jali’s hand. Eventually the words found me. They weren’t very profound, but I assured Okuhle that I didn’t think there was a more beautiful place in the world to set his spirit free: at home near his family on the edge of a gently sloping cliff, looking down over a valley covered in scrub and aloes and Euphorbia, and where distant cows low in the ashes of the day. Silence and peace walked from the grave with us. I trust the ancestors were smiling quietly.
Then Zenande took a photo of us; we said our thank you’s and farewells and drove home.
Thank you Mr and Mrs Jali, Mama no tata kaOkuhle, for amanz’ ashushu. Siyanibulela kakhulu.